Written by Karen Carlson
A year ago, few people knew the name Alexander Lane. Today, Lane’s name is receiving recognition as an extraordinary alumnus of Southern Illinois University, thanks to some dedicated research by Pamela Smoot, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at SIUC, and the support of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Matt Baughman, Institute associate director, initiated the idea of studying the life of Dr. Lane.
Alexander Lane was born into slavery in pre-Civil War Mississippi. With the promise of a good education, Lane’s mother gave him up to a Union Army colonel. He grew up in the small southern Illinois town of Tamaroa and in 1876 became the first African-American male to attend what was then known as Southern Illinois Normal University in Carbondale. And that was just the begin- ning of Lane’s life and legacy.
Dr. Smoot presented Lane’s story during a lecture at SIU School of Medicine in May. Dr. Smoot authored a paper about Lane based on her extensive research on the alumnus who became an educator, a physician and a state legislator.
“Lane demonstrates how SIU has engaged in diversity from the mid-19th century through today,” Dr. Smoot said, noting that SIU has awarded more undergraduate degrees to African Americans than any other four-year institution in the nation other than historically black colleges.
Lane became the first principal of the black grade school in Carbondale, Eastside School, from 1881-91. He then moved his wife, Belle, and son, Roscoe, to Chicago, where he entered Rush Medical School. He graduated in 1895. He became a well-known private physician and was appointed by Cook County Commissioners as the Cook County Assistant Physician.
As a prominent member of Chicago’s black society, Lane developed an interest in politics. In 1906, he be- came the ninth African-American elected to the Illinois General Assembly and was re-elected in 1908.
Among the bills he proposed, two focused on the criminal justice system –– one to regulate hours women worked, and one called for “changing the method of capital punishment from hanging to electrocution.” He served on numerous legislative committees, including one to protect the safety of milk.
Dr. Lane died in 1911 of exhaustion and diabetes. He is buried in Carbondale.
Numerous notables enjoyed Dr. Smoot’s lively presentation, including SIU President Glenn Poshard, Chancellor Rita Cheng and a sizable crowd, including several state legislators and officials such as Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, daughter of the late senator for whom the Institute is named, and Mike Lawrence, former director of the Institute. To continue to honor Lane's memory, the institute is raising funds to endow an annual internship program for SIU students. The paid internship will give students the opportunity to jump-start their careers in public service and politics, allowing at least one student — preferably a minority — a chance to work with a member of the Illinois General Assembly in conjunction with the Legislative Black Caucus.
“Lane made a difference in the lives of other people,” Dr. Smoot noted. “This internship will continue to celebrate his legacy.”
The Institute has already received contributions and pledges of nearly $125,000 toward the endowment. Donations may be made online at paulsimoninstitiute.org or by contacting Baughman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (618) 453-4001.
“Alexander Lane is an important, and overlooked, part of SIU history, and he is a role model for today’s students,” said David Yepsen, Institute director. “An internship in his honor will be a living legacy for him that can inspire and help our students — and provide a service to the community and policy makers today.”